Contact 5 Investigates: How much are you paying for vacant government property?

Taxpayers outraged

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - At a time when government officials are slashing budgets and laying off workers across our area, they're spending millions of dollars on vacant land you probably didn't even know was there.

The Contact 5 Investigators discovered, in just the past five years, more than $3 million has been spent on vacant buildings and upkeep costs for properties that aren't being used. Is it a big investment or a big waste of money?

"Uh, that's just unfathomable to me that type of money," taxpayer Marlene Johnston, said.

For example in Ft. Pierce, school leaders tore down the old Ft. Pierce Central High School but kept the unused portable classrooms on the property. Those classrooms have cost taxpayers more than $60,000 over a three year period.  Plus, it costs another $5,200 to cut the grass.

"Spending that much money on vacant property, I'm sorry I just think that's wrong," said Ft. Pierce taxpayer Gail Simmons.

In the Glades, the state shut down an area prison last year to save money. Since then, the vacant building and security have cost you $112,000.

"That's crazy, when they're not even using it, that's not right!" Belle Glade resident, Andy Willis, said.

At Palm Beach International Airport, the federal government spent close to $20 million on a new air traffic control tower. Two years later, it's still empty and they're still spending money to maintain it.

Click here to see what properties are vacant in your area.

The Contact 5 Investigators found Palm Beach County is one of the agencies with some of the biggest expenses. It owns more than 100 vacant properties from prime oceanfront real estate, to unused green spaces, to buildings that are attracting unwanted visitors. The total market value: $113 million.

"If we do own land we could sell, we just want to make sure we can get a good price for it and that's the thing that's tough to do right now," Palm Beach County Administrator Robert Weisman, said. 

Many of the properties are planned for future parks and green spaces.  Weisman said the county wants to hold onto most of the others for future use. That includes a large office building near the airport. It's a building that has sat mostly empty for the past six years, costing taxpayers approximately $600,000. That's just to keep the building open and doesn't include utility costs.

"Even if you don't want to sell it, why haven't you considered leasing it to save 100,000 dollars a year?" asked Contact 5 Investigator Dan Krauth.

"We're hopeful in five years to have full occupancy of that building," Weisman, said.

"But another five years means about $500,000 in taxpayer money?" Krauth, asked.

"Yes but it might take eight million dollars to fix it up," Weisman said.

If you think that sounds like a lot, the Contact 5 Investigators took a tour of the county's most expensive vacant property: Mecca Farms. It was purchased for Scripps Labs that were later built in Jupiter. Scripps Laboratories is not affiliated with WPTV or its owner, the E.W. Scripps Company.

Now taxpayers are stuck footing the bill to take care of it. That costs more than $250,000 a year.

"To do what?" asked taxpayer Tom Dalessio who lives next to the property. "That's surprising as hell," he said.

That adds up to approximately $2 million to take care of a property it hasn't been able to sell. Those costs include the price to mow the property, clean out the canals and to keep the diesel fuel pumps running on the property to prevent flooding.

"If we could sell it, we would be saving the taxpayers a lot," said Weisman. Right now the county is discussing the possibility of selling the property to South Florida Water Management District.

"The way we're managing our properties is the best we can do for the taxpayers and ourselves in the long run," Weisman said.

Palm Beach County spends an additional $50,000 a year to take care of the rest of its smaller vacant properties.

As for those portable classrooms in St. Lucie County, school officials said they're holding onto them in case they need them in the long run.

"We run electricity to those to dehumidify them to protect the buildings," said Marty Sanders. Sanders works for St. Lucie County Public Schools.

"Why don't you just tear them down?" asked Krauth.

"Well, we might," said Sanders.

The prison might reopen one day too, so the state doesn't want to sell it.

And as for the empty airport tower that rises above them all, the feds may have to spend more money before moving in next year.  It wasn't built big enough to house their computer equipment in the first place.

Click here to see what properties are vacant in your area.

Investigative Producer Lynn Walsh contributed to this story.








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